It’s hard to find too much to say about Arata Kangatari, really, because the whole enterprise speaks more to the potential it left untapped than to anything that appeared on screen. The finale, like the rest of the series, was perfectly fine for what it was. It was competently executed and in context more faithful to the manga than it could have been, but the overriding question my mind is, why was the decision made to adapt this series at all, if it was only going to be 12 episodes?
If I have any hopes for this series, they would be that it gives new viewers at least some sense of what a good manga this is. It’s impossible for me to address that as a manga reader, but for what it’s worth I think the anime did capture at least a little of the flavor of the manga. But that’s also why the one element of the adaptation that was really subpar – the art and animation – is so surprising and disappointing. Watase-sensei’s art is really superb, and it seems criminal to try and sell people on her work without doing justice to that. Satelight is capable of so much more – they gave us the lovely watercolor painting that was Ikoku Meiro no Croisee, and while it bored me to tears there’s no denying Mouretsu Pirates was a great-looking show. Yeah, it made a lot more money – but if Arata was going to have a minuscule budget on top of its minuscule schedule, again what I really want to ask is why they bothered.
In terms of story, I actually think it’s somewhat remarkable that Yoshida Kenji managed to pull this off as well as he did. It wasn’t Deadman Wonderland, which stopped right in the middle, or Zetman, which tried to super-condense a huge manga into one cour. Arata was somewhere roughly in the middle, doing a bit of a mashup of later plot arcs but mostly adapting the first 20% or so of the manga roughly in good faith. That too is certainly unsatisfying – in order to come up with even a semblance of an ending Yoshida moved Hinohara’s showdown with Kadowaki up so far it lost most of it’s contextual punch. But it was at least coherent this way, and the larger lesson is that there’s simply no good way to adapt 200-chapter manga into 12 anime episodes. As Simon & Garfunkel said, any way you look at it you lose.
I can’t really talk in specifics about the finale without dishing out a whole lot of manga spoilers, but I’ll say this much: the most interesting elements of the manga (for my money the arcs centering on Kannagi and Akechi, the the Kadowaki stuff after it gets pretty intense) were just barely teased in the anime. That’s true too of Arata’s Tokyo story, which is always a secondary part of the manga but consistently delivered every time Watase called on it. What the anime chose to focus on was mostly stuff in the first quarter or so of the manga, and it’s not the manga’s best face – so if you see elements of the larger story here that interest you, by all means please go read the manga. There’s some really good plot in there, and the characters we barely got to know in the anime are a lot deeper and their stories much more nuanced.
For the finale, we were pretty much limited to the Kadowaki battle and Yorunami’s submission to Hinohara, the latter of which is quite an important moment in the larger mythology. This process of submission (we also see Yorunami’s Zokusho submit after their master does so) is really the central conceit of the entire plot, though the anime doesn’t give that impression – and the parellel between that and the karmic struggle between Hinohara and Kadowaki is no coincidence. There was also a sampler platter of things to come in the final moments – a look-in on some characters we know, and some faces we haven’t met as of yet, as well as a brief check-in on Arata and a look at Harunawa (one of my biggest disappointments is not seeing him in all his wicked glory unleashed on Tokyo). It was the requisite commercial for the manga, and the least the anime could do.
I’m generally of the view that any adaptation is better than no adaptation if you’re a fan of a work, but the reality is often bittersweet at best. I don’t know if I’d say I would be happier if this anime hadn’t been made, but it’s hard to see what purpose it truly serves – is such a truncated and visually unimpressive story really going to win over many converts for the manga? Try to imagine if Inuyasha had been adapted into a one-cour anime – what would that have been like? Arata Kangatari could have been really special if it had been given the full treatment, and I think a quite serviceable story could have been presented even in two cours. As it is I think the best I can say as a manga reader is that it was a lot better than it could have been under the circumstances, but if I’m honest that’s small consolation.